Charles Roven: A Q&A With The PGA’s David O. Selznick Honoree Reveals When He Knew He Really Made It In Hollywood

Charles Roven

EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Charles Roven was honored by his peers tonight at the Producers Guild of America Awards with the 2018 David O. Selznick Achievement Award bestowed for his body of work — a long career that began about 34 years ago with his first film Heart Like A Wheel. His resume now includes everything from 12 Monkeys and American Hustle (which garnered 10 Oscar-nominations in 2014) to churning out franchise hits one by one for the Warner Bros. including Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, Suicide SquadJustice League and the Patty Jenkins’ female superhero inspiration Wonder Woman.

Roven’s plate is always full as he is usually juggling two to three film projects at a time while also constantly developing other material. He is currently working on sequels for both Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman as well as a feature based on the video game Unchartered. The blockbuster Wonder Woman is also nominated for a PGA Award tonight. Deadline had some questions for the powerhouse producer prior to tonight’s event. Here are his thoughts on his life in the film industry, who had influenced him most as a producer, when he knew he had really made it as a filmmaker and what’s next:

Who has had the most influence on your life as a producer?

Certainly, David O. Selznick is a producer whose work I have greatly, greatly admired. And so there’s a sense of wonderful irony that I’ll be getting this award.

I’ve had a very diverse career, even though I’ve made many films as a producer, and I would say that’s my main focus, I’ve had many experiences in the entertainment business from management, in particular music management to being a part owner of Dick Clark Productions. For that reason I’d have to say I really admired Jerry Weintraub (Ocean’s Eleven franchise) as he also had a diverse producing career as well as a diverse career in the entertainment business including being a manager.

How have you seen the business change for producers, for better or for worse?

There’s always a yin and yang to time and progress. Certainly in terms of invention, both technically and what people are doing now in terms of changing how movies are speaking to an audience, I think that’s for the better. When you look at the diversity of what’s being created from small movies to big movies, I think it’s a great time for content and a great time for motion picture content even though there are challenges about theatrical windows and windows in general,  all of those things are continue to evolve.

For producers, there’s this segmentation in the business, where it used to be that you could make a film that was small, there was still room in the marketplace for that medium-sized budget, and then that slightly higher budget as well as that tentpole budget, but now studios are making more and more of those big blockbuster-type movies but less total number of movies and that middle-budget movie has really been co-opted by the over-the-top players like Netflix and Amazon. Hopefully that will mean more opportunity for producers.

Clearly, you’ve been making films in the studio system for a while but you’re not a stranger to making independent films, as well, like The Bank Job, for example. What is your perspective on how that’s changed? How much harder or easier is it to get movies made?

I actually think it’s a great time to get movies made, you just have to pick your buyer with the kind of product or the kind of film that you’re making.

You know, even back in 2013/2014 when I was making American Hustle, I developed the film at a studio and then it turned into an independent film that I co-financed with a studio when Megan Ellison from Annapurna came in to co-finance it.

Same thing with The Bank Job, I put together financing there and I think that’s a very viable thing. What’s new is companies like Amazon and Netflix that are big buyers and they’re making a lot of movies –  so I think it’s a good time to be a producer.

You have spoken in the past about having to think laterally to be successful. Can you give our readers a recent instance where you had to employ that kind of thinking? 

There are a number of films that represent that, quite frankly. You know, always trying to be undaunted by rejection. Trying to find the way to get your movie made, has really been something that I’ve been doing my whole career.

I developed 12 Monkeys at Universal, but they felt that the film was too risky, so I went out and put together this consortium of independent distributors led by Tele München in Germany and the BBC and what was back then Polygram in the the UK, a company called UGC in France, Shochiku in Japan, but convinced them not to just own their own territories but to also make an investment into the rest of the world. So, they bought more than just their territory and they ended up financing 52% of the budget of the movie. So that’s one example – I was able to go back to Universal and they put up the balance. Even though they distributed in the rest of the world from those separate territories, those equity investors, only got the territory that they came from to distribute, where Universal did the rest of the world. So that was a relatively unique structure and very different from what was a conventional deal before and after which would just be selling off the territory for what you could get for it.

Another way would be the American Hustle deal where we developed the movie at Sony but the studio didn’t want to make it, so we took it back from Sony and we went into business with Megan Ellison who sold off some territories which Megan did through a company she had at the time called Panarama, which was her foreign sales arm. She essentially committed to financing the entire movie and then at a certain point it became very clear that we needed to bring a partner to Megan, she wanted one, and so we went back to Sony and they became a partner in the production and not just the distributor of the movie.

It’s important to constantly be fluid when  looking for ways to put your film together. I would think that those are two interesting examples of thinking laterally.

Are you still developing Uncharted, based on the popular video game of the same name?

Yes. We’ve come up with a wonderful origin story but it’s still based on the Uncharted video game. It doesn’t take place during any of the time period of any of the Uncharted video games. It actually takes place when Nathan Drake (who’s the lead of that game) and Sully, I guess you’d call him his surrogate father, were much younger. It’s an origin story that evolves out of the game but is not from the game. Shawn Levy is going to be directing it and a young writer Rafe Judkins is currently writing the screenplay.

Do you think you can launch a tentpole film today that is not based on existing IP?

Yes, I absolutely think that you can launch a tentpole today that is not based on existing IP, by having the proper elements: a really intriguing idea and a world-class filmmaker. A perfect example of someone who constantly creates tentpoles that is not based on existing IP is Chris Nolan and his producing partner Emma Thomas. You can talk about Inception (not based on existing IP), you can talk about Interstellar (not based on existing IP), you can talk about Dunkirk (not based on existing IP).

You’ve been an integral part of the DC Universe as the lead producer on many of their films. You’re currently moving forward on a sequel to both Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad. As the DC Universe expands, it seems your role is evolving …

I think my role for the moment is to focus on those sequels but, you know, a couple of years ago, I was a producer on all of the Justice League movies and their individual heroes movies. But it became very clear that in order to be a producer on those movies in the timeline that Warner Bros. wanted, it was way too big a job for one producer to oversee.

You also have experience working on critically acclaimed films such as American Hustle (which also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical), the Oscar-nominated 12 Monkeys. In what ways do they differ from working on tentpole films like those in the DC Universe, The Dark Knight or Wonder Woman?

Of course there are differences in making large tent poles like those in the DC universe versus independent film but a lot of it has to do with the size of the production. When you’re making a film like American Hustle, you have to be very efficient with your time and your shooting schedule. I think on American Hustle our shooting schedule was something around 40-45 days, and our global footprint was really Boston, and a couple of days in NY, because we couldn’t afford to expand that.

When you are making a film like The Dark Knight or Wonder Woman, your global footprint is really much more expanded, as are the amount of days you’re shooting. On Wonder Woman, we shot in the UK and also shot in Italy, and in The Dark Knight, we shot in the UK, Chicago, and in Hong Kong. And those two movies had a shooting schedule of between 100 -120 days. So those are marathons compared to the middle distance or sprint of a smaller budgeted movie. So from that standpoint, you are dealing with a lot of different problems because you are juggling a lot of different actors over a very long period of time, and the production fatigue of shooting that many days.

But it’s the same because you’re constantly making sure no matter the size of the movie that you are creating situations and characters that are compelling that’s going to draw your audience in. You always have to be mindful of the fact that you shouldn’t let the spectacle dilute from how important it is to make sure your audience is emotionally engaged in characters.

You have risen to become one of the top producers in Hollywood. Among the 100 top-grossing films of all time, you have produced five (The Dark Knight Rises, The Dark Knight, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman, and Suicide Squad). What do you attribute your success to?

I’ve been extremely lucky. But, I do work very hard. I’m a workaholic. I’m very compulsive. As I said earlier, I like to think laterally but I also like to think holistically at a fifty thousand foot level, and then I like to  go down to the ground level, and I think all of those things help.

And one of the things that’s also allowed me to be successful is that I’ve also picked great producing partners to work with, and I couldn’t have been as successful as I am without the participation of those great producing partners, Emma Thomas, Richard Suckle, Deborah Snyder, and Alex Gartner.

The previous recipients of the David O. Selznick Award are — well look at this list — Irwin Winkler, David Heyman, Stanley Kramer, Billy Wilder, Clint Eastwood, Jerry Bruckheimer, Brian Grazer, Laura Ziskin, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Scott Rudin and Steven Spielberg. Now it’s you. It must be just the most incredible honor to have, especially knowing that it is coming from your peers. 

The reality is, it is very rewarding to be in their company. I couldn’t think of something that would be a greater honor than this because each one of them individually is such a master at what they do.

When did you know in your gut that you had made it as a filmmaker? 

Well, you know, it’s a funny thing because every single film that you make is completely different from the previous one because the ingredients are always different.

You are working with a different script, even if sometimes if you’re doing a sequel and its got some of the same characters in it, many times you’re working with a different director. The locations are different, the alchemy and the sauce that you’re creating is always original with every movie.

Every movie stands on its own, and you’re hoping that you can have a continuity of success because if you have too many failures in a row it becomes more difficult to get your projects financed.

But I would say that the first time that I felt that I had produced a major piece that I thought would have a life after its release and be one of those films that I could be proud that I was part of was 12 Monkeys. It was a hit not just critically but it was also a significant box office winner. You can watch it again and there’s a freshness to it, it stands the test of time. It even became a successful TV show (now entering its fourth year).

What’s the best advice you can give to young producers struggling to make it in this town?

Always put the film first! If you have passion for a project, don’t give up on it as you can withstand many no’s and you only need one yes.

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